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Friday, December 09, 2005

At the grownups' table

Being at the loose end of a dwindling bank balance, I've had to resort to that most enriching of inexpensive pleasures, re-reading old favorites. And none has given me more pleasure than Mortdecai Richler's expertly edited 540-page pick of The Best of Modern Humor.

Well, not quite so modern these days, having been published in October 1983 and placed under that year's Christmas tree by my newish wife, clever girl. Two months away from delivering our first child and all she thought about was getting it right for her man. (Pause for a Kleenex moment).

Yes, absolutely packed with truly funny sketches and stories by the finest wits in town, but it's the Richler's Foreword that I'm on about here: unbeknownst to me (or at least conveniently forgotten) most of my funniest lines and anecdotes over the years have clearly been lifted straight from that witty intro.

Here, by way of tribute to Stephanie without whom ... well, without everything, if you must know ... here's the pick of those pages ...

  • Young lady writes to ask James Thurber if there are any standard rules for writing humor. The best the great man could come up with was a list of proscriptions. Avoid comic stories "about plumbers who are mistaken for surgeons, sheriffs who are terrified by gunfire, psychiatrists who are driven crazy by women patients, doctors who faint at the sight of blood, adolescent girls who know more about sex than their fathers do, and midgets who turn out to be parents of a two-hundred-pound wrestler.

    [And the killer ] Thurber, after 20 years of sifting through unsolicited manuscripts, also recommended to neophyte humorists that the word "I'll" should not be divided so that "I" is on one line and the "ll" on the next, "because the reader's attention can never be recaptured."

    Maybe you had to be there, but I just sat there in my Xmas jammies and laughed and laughed.

  • There's more: a rule not mentioned by Thurber is that it's usually unwise to ask one comic novelist to pronounce on another.

    Evelyn Waugh writing back to the fragrant publiciste who'd sent him an advance copy of Catch-22 in hopes of snagging a jacket quote:

    "Thank you for sending Catch-22 . I am sorry that the book fascinates you so much. It has many passages quite unsuitable to a lady's reading. It suffers not only from indelicacy but from prolixity. ... You may quote me as saying: 'This exposure of corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.' "

    B'boum! They do NOT  write 'em like that any more. I do hope a *smidgeon* of a smile played about the old boy's chops as he polished that one off - unbeatable.

  • The famous one from Edmund Gwenn. "Dying is easy," murmured the actor on his deathbed. "Comedy is difficult."

  • PG Wodehouse's observation that the trouble began at school.

    If a boy merely talked amusingly, he was a silly ass. If his conversation took a mordant or satirical turn, he was a funny swine. "You think you're a funny swine, don't you, Holmes?"

    Whichever, wrote Wodehouse, the wits were scorned and despised, and lucky not to get kicked.

  • "When you do comedy," Woody Allen once said, "you are not sitting at the grownup's table."

  • "Humor to me," Dorothy Parker once wrote, "takes in many things. There must be courage; there must be awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it." Well said that woman!

  • The editor himself: "But truly good humor, charged with outlandish hooks and unexpected sharp jabs, is bound to offend, for, in the nature of things, it ridicules our prejudices and popular institutions. Alas, people have become so touchy that to be irreverent these days it to invite an outraged retort from some pompous organization or another. Even being funny about porcupines can be risky. "Just try it," wrote P.G. Wodehouse, "and see how quickly you find your letter-box full of communications beginning: 'Sir, With reference to your recent tasteless and uncalled-for comments on the porcupine ...."

  • One of my favorites about abusive mail is Mortdecai wondering "what sort of letters Roy Blount, Jr., earned when he wrote of the first Carter campaign:

    " ... when Earl Butz was quoted as saying that all black folks want is 'a tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit,' I wish Jimmy had responded by saying it sounded like a set of priorities a lot of people could identify with."

  • As Richler puts it, "For all I know, Blount is still in hiding."

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